British Pub signs are living tributes to heraldic traditions, folklore and British history. They developed with the Roman taberna – a single room shop selling wine, bread and cooked food- situated within the great indoor markets of ancient Rome. Each taberna would hang vine leaves outside their premises to advertise they sold wine – in Roman Britain vine leaves were rare (due to the climate), so small evergreen bushes were substituted.
Consequently, one of the earliest pub signs was ‘The Bush’ followed closely by ‘The Yew Tree.’
It was during the Medieval Period that the pub sign came into existence. Early pubs hung long poles or ale stakes outside their doors. If both wine and ale were sold, then both bush and pole would be hung outside- stemming from the earlier Roman tradition of vines being displayed to advertise wine.
By the 12th century Pub Signs became common place, and as the majority of the population were illiterate, the name of the pub or inn was shown pictorially on a sign. In 1393 King Richard II passed an Act making it compulsory for all inns and brewers of ale to display a sign. The legislation stated:
“Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale.”
This was done to make alehouses easily visible to passing inspectors- the borough ale tasters, who would decide the quality of the ale they provided.
Many pubs had similar names- often these were named after monarchs or the commemoration of important battles, pubs like ‘The crown’, probably adopted the name when King Charles resumed the throne, and inns re-opened for business after Oliver Cromwell’s five-year rule as Lord Protector- when alcohol was forbidden.
Before the reformation in Henry VIII’s time, and the split from the Catholic Church, many pubs were also given religious names. ‘The Crossed Keys’ was the emblem of St Peter, ‘The Mitre’ as a reference to a bishop’s headgear, ‘The Ship’ which symbolised Noah’s Ark and ‘The Anchor’ which was a reference to the Christian faith.
The Crusades also produced many notable pub names, and many early inns were run by religious houses to cater for pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. So many hostelries were named ‘The Saracens Head’, ‘The Turk’s Head’ and ‘The Lamb and Flag’- where the lamb represented Jesus Christ and the flag was the flag carried by the Crusaders.
Many pub signs have royal links: for instance, ‘The White Lion’ dates from the time of Edward IV and ‘The White Boar’ was the emblem of Richard III.
‘The Red Lion’ is probably one the most common names for a pub, and originates from the time of James I and VI of Scotland who came to the throne in 1603. James ordered that the heraldic Red Lion of Scotland be displayed on all buildings of importance – including pubs.
Infamous goings-on are also represented, with the names ‘The Smugglers Haunt’ and ‘The Highwayman’– more recently, social and industrial change have been reflected in pub names, with ‘The Railway’and ‘Flying Scotsman.’ Sport is also represented with names like ‘The Cricketers’ and ‘The Bat and Ball.’
Many Pubs are named after famous people in British history- ‘Duke of Wellington’, ‘The Sherlock Holmes’, ‘The Shakespeare’, and ‘The Churchill Arms’ to name a few.
London Pub Facts
- Five tube stations are named after pubs (Swiss Cottage, Royal Oak, Manor House, Angel and Elephant & Castle)
- Maida Vale is named after a pub (the Heroes of Maida)
- Other areas named after pubs include Fitzrovia (Fitzroy Tavern), Nag’s Head in Holloway, Baker’s Arms in Waltham Forest, New Cross in Lewisham, White Hart Lane in Tottenham.
- According to tradition, Pimlico is named after Ben Pimlico, a publican “famous for his nut brown ale” according to Gifford, in his edition of Ben Jonson
The History and Heritage of London’s Pubs
- Ye Olde Watling is reputed to have been built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1666 for workers on his St Paul’s Cathedral and constructed with wood from old ships timbers. He used one of upper rooms as his drawing office during the building of St Paul’s
- Samuel Pepys watched The Great Fire of London from The Anchor pub on Bankside.
- Samuel Johnson used to drink at The Anchor regularly, as well as Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street (which Mark Twain and Dickens also frequented)
- Dick Turpin used to drink at The Spaniards in Hampstead and at The Flask in Highgate, as did the Romantic Poets Byron, Shelley and Keats. The Spaniards also features in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Turpin’s pistols were said to hang over the bar
- Gladstone frequented The Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich, while Charles II used to take his mistress Nell Gwynn for dinner at The Dove in Hammersmith
- The Mayflower in Rotherhithe was the stopping point for the pilgrim fathers as they emigrated to America. The Mayflower (the boat) docked outside the pub, then called The Shippe, before it went via Plymouth to America
- The Old Bank of England still has the original vaults belonging to the Bank of England hidden in its cellar which held gold bullion and also the Crown Jewels during the First World War
- During the Second World War, The French House and De Hems in Soho were meeting places for the French Resistance, including Charles de Gaulle
- Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in the Red Lion pub in Soho. Lenin used to drink at The Crown Tavern
- The upstairs room of The Star Tavern in Belgravia is where the Great Train Robbers hatched their plan. Other patrons included Peter O’Toole and Diana Dors
The Cultural Heritage of London’s Pubs
- Charles Dickens was a frequenter of many pubs in London including the Lamb and Flag on Conduit Street (which Dryden also frequented), The George and Vulture (mentioned in The Pickwick Papers), the One Tun (which inspired Bill Sykes’ pub in Oliver Twist); and The Grapes, which is now owned by Sir Ian McKellen
- Turner sketched views of the Thames from the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping
- Orwell drank in The Dog and Duck in Soho, as did John Constable and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The Newman House in Soho was the inspiration for the underclass pub in Orwell’s 1984
- Dylan Thomas used to drink at The Fitzroy Tavern in Bloomsbury when he worked at the BBC (as did Orwell). TS Eliot and the 1930s literary set drank in the nearby Marquis of Granby on Rathbone Street, Soho
- The Black Friar, by Blackfriars Bridge, was saved from demolition following a campaign led by the poet Sir John Betjeman
“The British pub is unique, rooted in our island’s history, dating from Roman and Saxon times, There is no better place for people to meet, enjoy a beer, strike up a conversation, make new friends and put the world to rights. Above all, the British pub, both ancient and modern, has character and an atmosphere that could never be replaced.” –The Good Beer Guide editor Roger Protz